The United States finally backed its words with actions against Myanmar military commanders and units seen as responsible for last year’s lethal crackdown in Rakhine state that drove over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims as refugees into neighboring Bangladesh. But its failure to include top military leaders in a new sanctions list announced on Friday shows that geopolitics continues to dictate America’s engagement with the country.

The US Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on four military and border guard commanders, as well as two army units, for human rights abuses. Specifically, the sanctions were imposed on military commanders Aung Kyaw Zaw, Khin Maung Soe and Khin Hlaing and border police commander Thura San Lwin, in addition to the military’s 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions.

The measures call for freezes on any assets the individuals may hold in the US, a prohibition on Americans doing business with them as well as bans on their travel to America.The Treasury Department’s August 17 release said that Myanmar’s security forces “have engaged in violent campaigns against ethnic minority communities across [Myanmar], including ethnic cleansing, massacres, sexual assault, extrajudicial killings, and other serious human rights abuses.”

Because the announcement used the language “across [Myanmar]”, the sanctions also come in response to abuses committed by security forces in the war zones of northern Shan state and Kachin state, where heavy fighting between state forces and ethnic rebels has recently displaced 100,000 civilians.

Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis
Myanmar security officials stand guard in a pool of mud on July 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis

The punitive measures are the severest Washington has imposed on Myanmar since all of the previous economic sanctions it imposed for decades against the country, likewise for military perpetrated rights abuses, were lifted by former US president Barack Obama in October 2016.

The US had earlier eased broad prohibitions on investment and trade with the long-isolated country but retained more targeted restrictions on certain military-run companies and personalities associated with the military junta that gave way to a quasi-civilian government after a heavily rigged election that favored military-backed candidates in 2010.

In November 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by former pro-democracy icon and long-time political deetainee Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide electoral victory. That result prompted many international observers to conclude that Myanmar had become a full-fledged democracy after decades of abusive military rule.

Events since, however, have revealed that de facto national leader Suu Kyi and her NLD government have only limited powers, as the still powerful military remains in sole control of all matters related to internal and external security.

The autonomous military has full legal control over the defense ministry, home ministry and border affairs ministry, a configuration that means Suu Kyi’s elected government had no command authority over military actions in Rakhine state and other ethnic minority areas. That partly explains why the Treasury Department’s new targeted sanctions did not include any civilian officials, including Suu Kyi.

Myanmar's State Councellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi looks on during the 9th Asean-UN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Linus Escandor II
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at an ASEAN Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. Photo: AFP/Linus Escandor II

That hasn’t shielded the former Nobel Peace Prize laureate from widespread criticism that she could have done more to prevent the atrocities and in the aftermath moved more assertively to hold those responsible to account. Suu Kyi has instead frequently parroted the military’s line that reports of abuses have been exaggerated or “fake news.”

She has been hit hard in the court of public opinion, seen in the withdrawal of several of the international accolades she received during her long non-violent struggle for democracy. In March, the US Holocaust Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award withdrew her award for failing to “intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Rakhine state.”

Still, some already argue that by singling out only certain individual military commanders and units for the violence in Rakhine state and other ethnic minority areas, the new US sanctions deliberately overlook the fact that they certainly did not act on their own accord.

Security analysts note that no army unit or local commander could possibly have mounted an operation on the scale of last year’s Rakhine state onslaught without orders to do so from Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his inner circle of military leaders.

It is not immediately clear why Min Aung Hlaing and other top brass were spared by the US Treasury Department, but geopolitical concerns mostly likely factored into their exclusion.

Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as members of the Myanmar security forces stand guard in Inn Din village September 2, 2017. Picture taken September 2, 2017.  Handout via REUTERS
Ten Rohingya Muslim men with their hands bound kneel as Myanmar security forces stand guard in Rakhine state’s Inn Din village, September 2, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

After implementing a series of political reforms, including the mass release of hundreds of political prisoners in 2012, the country quickly turned from an international pariah to a darling of the West. Until then, Naypyitaw’s main foreign ally was China, a geopolitical fact Beijing leveraged to make strong economic and strategic inroads into the country.

That rising dependence, however, was increasingly viewed as a strategic threat to Myanmar’s then military rulers and the decision to undertake liberal political reforms was calculated to re-engage the West and counterbalance China. Indeed, China lost certain privileges and projects as the country opened to more Western investment and initiatives.

The Rohingya crisis, however, quickly shifted that the dynamic to the status quo ante. While the West has nearly unanimously strongly condemned the violence, China has remained tactically silent while aggressively engaging the government and military.

If the US had opted to impose harsher sanctions that targeted Myanmar’s military leadership, including Min Aung Hlaing, there was a geopolitical risk the measures would push Myanmar even deeper into China’s embrace. It’s a risk the US clearly wants to avoid while it seeks regional allies to help ramp up pressure on Beijing.

In practical terms, the new sanctions will likely have no impact on the named officers, who are unlikely to try to travel to the US, or military units with no US-based assets that could be frozen. The new sanctions are thus largely symbolic, showing again that realpolitik considerations matter more than rights and democracy in America’s policy towards Myanmar.